German court dismisses animal-welfare case against leading neuroscientist

Max Planck researcher Nikos Logothetis was accused of animal-welfare violations relating to monkeys used in research.

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Nikos Logothetis

Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis.Credit: Sven Cichowicz

A court in Germany has dismissed a high-profile case of alleged animal cruelty brought against neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis, less than three weeks before hearings were scheduled to begin.

The administrative court in Tübingen announced the decision on 19 December, citing new information in an expert report commissioned by the defence to review the evidence. The report was provided to prosecutors and the court at the beginning of this month.

The charge against Logothetis — who is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI-Biocyb) in Tübingen — was related to an alleged delay in euthanizing three sick research monkeys. Two other staff members, who have not been publicly named, were also accused of the same charge and have had their cases dismissed.

The three people must now pay a small settlement, which is not associated with guilt, by mid-January.

Long process

The case has roots in 2014, when an undercover animal-welfare activist infiltrated the facilities at the MPI-Biocyb and filmed the handling of some of the monkeys used in research in Logothetis’s lab. The German Animal Welfare Federation, a non-profit animal-rights organization in Bonn, used the footage to make multiple allegations of violations of animal-protection laws to police.

In August 2017 a Tübingen judge dismissed all but one of the allegations, which related to the three sick monkeys. Two of the monkeys recovered after treatment, and the third was humanely killed after staff decided that it would not recover.

The case provoked outcry at the MPI-Biocyb, where Logothetis studies visual perception in the brain. In February, the district Tübingen court announced that it had issued Logothetis with a penalty order — an accusation of a minor offence, combined with a fine, which automatically becomes a conviction if the accused does not appeal. In a controversial move, the Max Planck Society then temporarily removed some of Logothetis’s managerial duties, along with his rights to work with animals and oversee animal research. Logothetis denied the charges and appealed against the penalty order, triggering the court hearings.

In a 19 December statement published in response to the case’s dismissal, the society says that it will immediately review the decision to revoke his duties and rights.

Logothetis won wide support from colleagues at the MPI-Biocyb and the international scientific community. Some researchers were concerned that the Max Planck Society’s removal of some of his responsibilities suggested he was being treated as guilty before he had a chance to prove his innocence, and said that this left animal researchers vulnerable to attacks by activists. The society’s leadership argued that it was obliged to take early action to counter any public perception that animals were not being handled correctly — a perception that could harm the reputation of animal research more generally.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07868-y
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